How Overrated Is Norman Mailer?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough," Noah Cross (John Huston) said in Chinatown. Norman Mailer's writing hasn't lasted quite long enough to attain complete respectability?or to become classic, by which I mean (borrowing from what I believe was Mark Twain's definition) that which is often praised but seldom read.

    My guess is that most people under the age of 40 who have heard of Mailer at all have not read a word he has written but have some vague feeling that they should. People over 40 may dimly remember enjoying some of Mailer's writing years ago, before he came to be seen as something of a buffoon, though a relatively quaint one. He can currently be seen in magazine ads for, pondering the question of whether "cloning will delight the devil and offend God, or offend the devil and delight God." Is Mailer poking fun at himself? No. No more than usual. Are clever advertising people poking fun at him? No. Though irony is more or less reflexive with advertising people, I'd hate to give them credit for such subtlety. This is certainly a caricature of Mailer's thought, but then isn't his thought already a caricature of thinking? Seal is in the same advertising campaign, thinking his own deep thoughts, though his attitude appears to be somewhat self-mocking. Perhaps the message is, in effect: for deep thinkers like Norman Mailer, and amateur thinkers like Seal?or perhaps we have lost all ability to distinguish between serious thinkers and casual ones.

    Even if this is true, it is not enough to account for Mailer's respectability, nor can we attribute it entirely to the passing of time. Mailer was judged as an important thinker by his contemporaries, revered intellectuals among them, who praised a substantial amount of his work at the time of its publication. One must accuse them of poor judgment, not poor memory. So we might take a certain degree of comfort from the undue attention that was, and to some extent continues to be, given to Mailer: maybe we have always had trouble distinguishing between serious thinkers and casual ones.

    Why was Mailer taken seriously in the first place? It is a fascinating question, one of the chief reasons Mary Dearborn's biography is more interesting than most of Mailer's writing. Dearborn does not, unfortunately, ask this question herself, though she gives us plenty of information with which to speculate.

    Here is my hypothesis: Mailer owes the success that he has had to luck, a considerable genius for self-promotion and some talent as a writer, though when one takes into account the vast quantity of writing he has produced (and he seems to have published all of it, much of it more than once), it is difficult not to think about rooms filled with monkeys and typewriters.

    The Naked and the Dead made Mailer rich and famous at 25. It is a book any 25-year-old could be proud to have written?amateurish but coherent, with passages of considerable power and clarity. Still, any number of intelligent, literary-minded young men who had seen a war firsthand could have done as well. It is unlikely that many people would have tolerated Mailer or his writing had it not been for that novel's success, but then there would probably have been far less to tolerate or publish. The narcissism that, more than anything else, came to define Mailer was there before The Naked and the Dead, but it was undoubtedly stoked by success. Dearborn provides ample evidence that Mailer was little more than a callow young man putting on airs after he wrote Naked, though she herself only occasionally seems aware of it. Someone tells him who Sartre is, and suddenly Mailer is an existentialist; he reads a phrase from Marx, and now he's a communist. Though his second novel was rejected by his publisher, he was able to take it elsewhere, and to continue to be seen as a serious novelist for years afterward in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This would have been inconceivable had he not written The Naked and the Dead.

    So the first bit of luck was being in World War Two, which gave him something important to write about. His next bit of luck was that, when Mailer was in his 30s, the avant-garde was poised to burst into the national spotlight. Mailer was a member of the avant-garde because of Naked, and he exploited a cultural climate in which the shocking was easily confused with the profound.

    How else to explain the praise given to the laughable short story "The Time of Her Time," which the esteemed literary critic Alfred Kazin, in his essay "How Good is Norman Mailer?," offered up as evidence of Mailer at his best. Allow me to summarize the plot:

    A guy named Sergius O'Shaugnessy who says that he runs a bullfighting school (he calls it an escuela de torear, though this is incorrect Spanish) moves into a loft in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood. First he has the whole place painted white, then he builds a wall and paints it red. Over a period of several months, he brings lots of women back there to fuck. Then he brings a smug, cold, 19-year-old Jewish NYU student there. They fuck on a couple of different occasions, and then O'Shaugnessy fucks her in the ass with what he repeatedly refers to as his "avenger." As she's leaving, she tells O'Shaugnessy that her analyst "told me your whole life is a lie, and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual that is you." O'Shaugnessy then narrates, "like a real killer, she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise to tell her that she was a hero fit for me."

    It is difficult to imagine what merit Kazin could have seen in this story. I can only surmise that he was titillated by the anal sex. But nearly 40 years later, Mailer and the editors of Random House were apparently proud enough of it to borrow its title, changing "her" to "our," for their enormous anthology of Mailer's work, published last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Naked and the Dead.

    But maybe this story is too easy a target. Armies of the Night is generally regarded as Mailer's most important work. I cannot challenge Louis Menand's assertion, made last year in the New York Review of Books, that "as a mordant portrait of the culture of the anti-war movement there is nothing to beat it," because I haven't read any other mordant portraits of the culture of the antiwar movement. It is clever in places, but, like nearly all of Mailer's writing, its relentless focus upon Mailer, Mailer, Mailer, and the lumbering pretentiousness of its prose make it a trial to read. Menand argues that Mailer's insertion of himself into Armies as a figure called "Mailer" is precisely what makes it great, in large part because Mailer was (apparently) the first journalist to do this. I am not won over by the "he was the first" argument for the importance of an artist. "Who was first?" is not nearly so interesting a question as "Who was best? Who endures?"

    When Mailer is criticized, it is usually for his ideas, and if he is charged more often with misogyny and racism these days than with philosophizing without a clue, as he was in the past, it scarcely seems to matter. What astonishes me is how difficult it is to find anyone, past or present, who will say anything negative about Mailer's prose style, most of which is unreadable for its pretentiousness. Either he is trying to sound like a detached man of letters, as in Armies?"The arbiter of nicety in him had observed with horror over many a similar occasion that he was absolutely without character for any social situation in which a pause could become the mood's abyss, and so he always filled the moment with the most extravagant amalgams of possibility"?or he makes you want to stuff a beret down his throat, as in this letter he sent to Partisan Review:

    Unless Vietnam is the happening. Could that be? Could that really be? Little old Vietnam just a happening? Cause if it is, Daddy Warbucks, couldn't we have that happening just with the Marines and skip all that indiscriminate roast tit and naked lunch, all those bombed-out civilian ovaries, Mr. J., Mr. L. B. J., Boss Man of Show Biz?I salute you in your White House Oval: I mean Americans will shoot all over the shithouse wall if this jazz goes on, Jim.

    There are exceptions: bits of journalism, and one book?The Executioner's Song?but entire forests have been laid to waste in the service of this man's efforts to make small points look like big ones by using 10 words instead of two.

    That said, I am not at all sorry to have read Dearborn's biography. Mailer is an immensely interesting personality who has had a fascinating life. He has crossed paths with an astonishing variety of people, and since he was such a provocateur the snapshots of various actors in history are often quite entertaining. We get glimpses of Mailer's hot and cold friendships with figures like James Baldwin, William Styron and Norman Podhoretz. We hear Lionel Trilling speculating that Mailer stabbed his wife in some kind of Dostoevskian experiment, and Diana Trilling utterly charmed after Mailer calls her "smart cunt."

    In a description of Norris Church, Mailer's sixth and current wife, we find out that she "had dated almost every available single man between Russellville and Little Rock?including aspiring lawyer Bill Clinton." The book gives us at least one amusing anecdote about Miles Davis, Jimmy Breslin, Marlon Brando, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, Dick Cavett, Roy Cohn, Gloria Steinem, George Plimpton, Don King, Arthur Miller, Rip Torn, JFK and Jackie O.?all the cocktail parties Mailer ever attended in the comfort of your own home! We also learn something about boxing, politics, drug dealing and, above all, the management of a writing career?something at which Mailer is an indisputable pro.

    The most serious problem with Dearborn's biography is that it lacks a clearly articulated stance on the significance of its subject. She seems to take it for granted that a biography of Mailer should be written. Of course she's right. Mailer is important. But why? Because of his writing or his public persona? Dearborn does not seem to want to argue, as I would, that Mailer is more interesting as a social phenomenon than as a writer. On the other hand, she never makes a serious case for the importance of his writing.

    This refusal to take a stand could conceivably be a stand in itself, if a bloodless one: an attempt to objectively tell the story of the life, reserving critical judgment. But she doesn't reserve critical judgment; she tosses it in haphazardly, as if she were making a soup instead of a biography. What's more, the critical appraisals we get often seem perfunctory. What does it mean to say that Mailer's book about Marilyn Monroe, is "a text to be reckoned with?that replays favorite themes, like the duality of the soul, and rehearses new ones: the notions of karma and reincarnation"?

    This is the only critical evaluation Dearborn gives us of Marilyn, but is it an evaluation? Does "to be reckoned with" mean that it has merits? If so, what are they? Surely not merely that it "replays favorite themes?and rehearses new ones."

    Airless and perplexing opinions of this kind drift throughout the biography. Often, I had the impression that Dearborn was not really offering an opinion so much as attempting to provide a transition to the next topic. She makes astute points as well, but they are often thrown away as asides, rather than developed and used to frame the narrative. Still, if you are curious about Mailer's life, and as I have said, there is no shame in that, a better biography is unlikely to come along. A genuinely discerning biographer, in the unlikely event that she even considered the project, would look at the mountains of unreadable drivel that Mailer has produced and conclude that her time would be better spent on something else.